Traditionally, the thing you say about great performers is that they make monstrously difficult physical feats look easy. Beyoncé, who is inarguably one of the greatest performers in the world right now, gives the lie to that cliché. One of the things that makes her great is that she shows how difficult it is to be Beyoncé.
When Beyoncé performs, you can see the sweat and the effort in every impossibly sleek dance combination, in every shimmering melisma. And now, in Homecoming, the Netflix documentary about her headlining performances at Coachella 2018, Beyoncé takes us behind the curtain and shows exactly how much work it takes to be Queen Bey.
Everything about Homecoming is calculated to astonish us with the effort that goes into generating Beyoncé’s perfection. She even makes it clear when she’s stitching together takes from different nights to create a single performance made up of all her best moments; the costumes have different colors on different nights, made blatantly clear as Beyoncé and her backup dancers switch from yellow to pink and back again in successive shots. These seams are forceful reminders that in order to show us at home the best possible version of a performance, Beyoncé had to do this performance full out, multiple times.
(The color-coded costumes are also a little bit of a humblebrag: Beyoncé and her acolytes hit their marks so consistently, the color coding suggests, that we’d never know the difference between one weekend’s performance and the next if Beyoncé hadn’t taken it upon herself to help us out.)
And that’s just the labor during Coachella itself. The documentary makes it clear that those performances were just the pinnacle of a long, arduous process.
“There was a four-month period of rehearsals with […] the band,” Beyoncé says in voiceover, about half an hour into the film, “before we started the four months of dance rehearsals.”
Beyoncé entered into that rehearsal period while still recovering from giving birth to her twins after a difficult pregnancy (she developed toxemia/preeclampsia and had to have an emergency C-section), and it’s here that her effort shows most.
“It’s hard,” she says. “There are days when I thought I’d never be the same. I’d never be the same physically, my strength and endurance would never be the same.” Onscreen, she approaches the rehearsal dance floor on her first day back after her pregnancy with visible trepidation. In rehearsal footage, she informs her choreographers that she wants to be able to have the energy to rehearse and do SoulCycle on the same day, but she’s not there yet. We see her curled up on a gym floor and clutching at spasming muscles; we see her getting lost briefly in combinations and then shaking her head with disgust.
“That’s why people don’t like to rehearse,” she tells one of her choreographers. “You’ve got to be humble. You’ve got to be willing to look awkward. You’ve got to study. Be a student.”
Beyoncé seems especially focused on the weight she gained during pregnancy, fixating on whether she’ll be able to fit into old costumes. In her publicity since her Coachella appearances, she’s focused on self-care and loving her body at any size: “I have a little mommy pouch, and I’m in no rush to get rid of it,” she said in Vogue last year. “I think it’s real.” But in Homecoming, she shows us the work it took to reach that self-acceptance.
“In order to meet my goals, I’m limiting myself,” she says in voiceover, her tone going grim and tense as she explains that she’s going vegan and dropping sugar, carbs, and alcohol. Onscreen she’s eating an apple; in voiceover, she sighs heavily. “I’m hungry,” she says.
Beyoncé wasn’t just working on her own appearance and performance. She makes it clear that she sweated every detail of her Coachella shows. She personally scripted the night, selected the dancers and the lights, directed the performances, decided how tall her pyramid of bleachers should be. “Every tiny detail had an intention,” she tells us.
“I respect things that take work. I respect things that are built from the ground up,” she says — and that respect, perhaps more than anything else, defines Beyoncé’s aesthetic, her workaholic perfection. So when she says, laughing, “I will never, never push myself that far again,” it’s hard to believe her.
It takes work to be queen — and Beyoncé keeps outworking herself.